Chilled thoroughly from a daylong ride in a cold rain that penetrated icily through every weak spot in my apparel, I found myself wondering why my right hand, but not my left, had grown numb with cold.
The answer jarred my lulled senses into the realization that I was on the verge of hypothermia. I'd reached the state of mental dullness that can creep over a solo individual during prolonged cold and stress.
I hadn't seen another soul the entire day in this wilderness north of Yellowstone National Park. I'd been holding the lead rope of the pack horse in my left hand and the reins in my right, resting it casually on top of the saddle horn.
Meanwhile, the broad brim of my "rainproof" hat had acted as a rain gutter, the slight "V" in the front of the brim funneling a steady stream of water down onto my right hand. Nearing exhaustion and dehydration, I'd ridden for many miles with a half-inch thick stream of ice-cold water dead-centering my stationary hand-and I'd been totally unaware of it.
If you tackle the wilderness alone, adopt the attitude of a second person, watching yourself for symptoms that are somehow uncharacteristic. My numb right hand revealed that I'd pushed past sensible limits. The horses were still game, but Major's pace was uncharacteristically slow, his head carriage low, his attitude reflecting indifference toward new sights on the trail.
I stopped, made camp, and managed to get a smoky fire going. Soon, a ray of sun cracked through the canopy of clouds, and the fronts of my trousers began to dry with the help of the fire. I quit shivering. Hydrated by steady sipping from a canteen, I smiled now at the sight of Major and Sugar biting off lavish chunks of meadow grass at the ends of their picket lines. Life was good.
Take special care of yourself if you head for the wilderness alone. Your survival can depend on it!
(For Dan Aadland's feature article, "Light & Alone in the Backcountry," pick up the September-October '08 issue of The Trail Rider.)